The road from toxic masculinity to enlightenment is challenging, raw and fraught. If it made a sound, it would be Smash Your Head On The Punk Rock, Sebadoh’s 1992 Sub Pop debut and a portrait of three men in transition.
The album is technically a compilation, featuring eight out of the nine songs on the EP Sebadoh Vs. Helmet, and four tracks from the Rocking The Forest EP — partially recorded in Calgary. Both EPs were released earlier in 1992. When I was in high school, I had all three. You know how it is.
I decided to spin this dusty old devil for the first time in probably 20 years. It is a wildly inconsistent album, as would be any album that included Eric Gaffney. Anyone who thinks Keith Moon was rock’s wildest drummer needs to hear Gaffney whose explosive yet sometimes ridgid style is unlike that of anyone else — it could be frantic, distracting while also uniquely musical, expressive and even, at times, subtle.
This is the first full-length album to feature bass player Jason Loewenstein — who, like Gaffney, could also be a capable singer and songwriter as well. But prior to this outing, Sebadoh were chiefly a duo featuring Gaffney and post-Dinosaur Jr prime mover Lou Barlow. Lou’s songs are far and away the best tracks on this comp.
It begins with feedback and the jarring, scream-vocal Gaffney number Cry Sis. It’s a temper tantrum of a song. Fun to play, miserable to hear. I made a lot of Sebadoh mix tapes back in the day. This one never made the cut. But what follows is as close to an indie losercore masterpiece as you’re gonna find: Brand New Love. A magnum opus for the times — an angst-filled ballad with a tremendous chorus, real catchy verses and an ending which devolves into thunderous white noise.
“Thrilled you fell apart, instead of them
But they will
Any hope for love can be killed
If you need a different face, it’s definite time to destroy this place
Any thought could be the beginning
Of the brand new tangled web you’re spinning
Anyone could be a brand new love
Follow what you feel, you alone decide what’s real
Anyone can be a brand new love.”
This song hit the sweet spot for a young me many, many times.
Loewenstein’s noodly and progressive Notsur Dnuora Selcric is up third. This song is just a series of different progressions — two of them quite pleasing while the main verse is harsh, heavy and bitter.
Then we get a Barlow fan favourite, Vampire. I love most of this song, except the chorus. The whole idea of a self-loathing, emotional vampire “draining her desire” is cringey. But, it’s certainly quite catchy and appealing — especially after Notsur Dnuora Selcric. The same way that the listener is rewarded with Brand New Love following Cry Sis. It’s the first one on the album with Bob Fay on drums instead of Gaffney. The difference is profound.
One of my faves is next, Good Things. It made a lot of mix tapes. Like Vampire, the chorus is at the end. It’s simple and hopelessly catchy. Gaffney is awesome on this, incredibly influential on me. You can really tell their instruments were so gd loud during recording. Blistering volume to get it on tape, with the levels brought down for the vocal overdubs. I love it. I had this song on a tape right before Two Lips, Two Lungs and One Tongue by NoMeansNo.
Side 1 ends here. You can skip the last track, Gaffney’s Cecelia Chime In Melee. It’s just noise. It’s the worst part of Saucerful Of Secrets, turned up to 11. They had so many much better songs. I don’t get it. Gaffney plays guitar, bass and synth on this and leaves the drums to Jason.
Weirder still, Side 2 opens with an inspired Byrds cover — of the David Crosby-penned Everybody’s Been Burned. The Sebadoh version is so much better. This and the next track both feature Fay instead of Gaffney.
That next track is Loewenstein’s other contribution, Junk Bonds. He has a way with song titles. I always liked Drama Mine, too. This really shows his songwriting in development. In a few years, this song would have been done quite differently and would have been a major favourite. This one is a tad sour and ragey, but still clever with some great hooks and effective drones.
Then we get my favourite song on the record — New Worship. Indie rock perfection. Well-recorded, lots of effective vocal inflection, refreshingly dynamic and layered with a big rock-out ending. This one was also awesome in its earlier acoustic version on the Weed Forestin’ album (as was Brand New Love).
Mean Distance shows that Gaffney is in fact able to write great songs. This one also has an explosive, almost split-personality, rock-out ending — one of the best ever, really. It features Jason on drums and bass with Gaffney on guitar. Lou sings.
The last two tracks both feature Fay rather than Gaffney. The first is a frigging great cover of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. This is the version I heard first. I’m not sure which I prefer. Depends on my mood. But the hyper-fuzz bassline in this version — which follows the descending piano lick from the original — is euphoric. I love it so much.
It all ends with Mind Meld, which I said features Fay. It doesn’t really, but it was written by him. Only Jason and Lou play on it. It’s a spacious, melodramatic, bass-heavy number with soaring high-volume progressions and a long instrumental intro. It also has a lovely melody at times. In excess of seven minutes, it is the longest song on the album by a wide margin.
This is kind of an essential album, certainly essential listening. For me, foundational. 3.5/5
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Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check him out on Discogs.